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How to Avoid Website (and Customer) Disasters

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We've seen too many high-profile calamities of websites going down in a major way—whether Target's, Ann Taylor's, Twitter's, or Facebook's. It's painful to watch, and certainly it must be far more painful to experience from the inside.

And, of course, such intermittent events aren't limited to retailers or big names, which are merely the ones that get the most press. Lost revenues and tarnished corporate and personal images don't discriminate by industry sector or company size. Online disasters can happen to anyone. And the last thing any of us wants or needs is bad press and irate customers.

More subtle than such blatant disasters, and in the long-term possibly more costly (and unnecessarily so), is poor or nonoptimal website performance that goes undetected.

Why Underperforming Websites Aren't Improved

By now, we know that degradation of website response times equates to lost revenue, and, similarly, improvements in website response times translate directly into revenue gains. For example, a two-second increase in response time reduced revenue per user 4.3% for Bing; and a five-second decrease in response time resulted in a 7-12% increase in revenue for Shopzilla.

You might have heard all this before... So why hasn't much of anything changed? Well, knowing of an issue is one thing, but having the time, authority, and tools to identify and fix the problem is something else entirely.

Many, if not most, marketers are understandably too busy with daily tasks and objectives (creating campaigns and tracking them, creating or increasing awareness, and maintaining or increasing inbound leads) to be able to properly focus on "customer perceived performance" (CPP). That lack of focus is particularly apparent among small and midsize businesses; but, even in large enterprises, too often the focus of Web analytics is on the more attention-getting aspects of it that don't deal with CPP.

As for the issue of authority, although CPP's impact is on Marketing, the determinant of it—Web performance—is generally housed within the IT department... Hello, efficient operation's old nemesis: departmental silos!

Why Marketing and IT Must Be Aligned

What is needed is a unified view. Marketing and IT should be looking at the same issue: that is, IT is constantly aware of Marketing's business considerations, and Marketing can see the real-time performance of IT operations that have an impact on both CPP and other Marketing concerns and initiatives. That cross-silo view can be achieved via the new generation of performance-visualization systems.

Having proper (i.e., engaged, enlightened, cooperative) alignment between the business side and IT is in line with the IT concept of business service management (BSM). However, coming to the level of BSM is a lengthy process with an uncertain outcome. BSM requires an IT department to, among other things, engage in significant personnel and process changes, including definition and documentation of services. Having a unified view is far speedier and more straightforward to implement and can even have a more profound and assured positive benefit.

Fortunately, from a prioritization of objectives point of view, aligning with business is one of the top priorities for CIOs, according to Gartner. And what better way for a CIO to facilitate such alignment than to have both IT and Marketing working off of the "same sheet of paper," or more correctly in this case, the same operational dashboards?

An additional benefit is that Marketing does not always have to be the bad guy, complaining to IT about this and that. IT will see, and be alerted to, the same issues that Marketing sees. IT can then start to share both your pain and your satisfaction.

Assessment of performance needs should not be limited to Web performance, the way Google Analytics is, for example. Why? Because you want IT to be able to quickly correlate the real-time information with its other systems, to do root-cause analysis. The days of switching back and forth between standalone systems that don't talk to one another are numbered. You want IT to be able to quickly work, with both historical and live graphs, to determine whether the CPP issue is caused by, say, Web servers, application servers, message queue systems, database servers, or caching servers.

When events or degradations like those described at the outset of this article happen, some element of the blame-game goes comes into play, yet no matter how much or how little Marketing bears the brunt of the blame, it is, of course, always incumbent upon us marketers to both have CPP recover quickly and work to make sure that such events are avoided in the future as much as possible. Hence the need for the root-cause analysis noted earlier.

So, in addition to rapid NOC (network operations center) response, as it's called in the IT/datacenter world, you want effective anticipation of emerging future needs and issues. Trending is one key way to do that. When both you and your IT department have graphs of your key operational metrics in front of you, you can see when things, say, take a downturn, become erratic, or increase. As for increases, they're not non-impact-producing; of course, even beneficial rises can result in greater than anticipated demand/draw on resources.

And so, no matter what type the anomaly being confronted, IT's being armed with this real-time knowledge can take pre-emptive action to ward off future hardship to you.

Why Aren't IT Departments Up to Speed?

"Why don't IT departments already use such a solution?" you might ask.

Well, for one thing, unified performance monitoring is a relatively new area and concept. Second, IT budgets have been cut to the bone, as with most budgets.

For the third reason, let's look at the typical causes of outages, say unplanned application downtime specifically. Estimates are that on average 40% are caused by operator errors, 40% by application failures (including "bugs" and changes to that cause unexpected problems), and only about 20% by hardware, operating system, environmental (heating, cooling, power, etc.), and disasters. Yet regarding monitoring, followed by application monitoring, that 20% seems to get the most attention. What's needed is a more holistic, comprehensive approach to performance monitoring that encompasses all areas, including Marketing.

And the fourth reason is that IT is not the one directly feeling the pain: Customers aren't complaining to IT, they're complaining to you, Marketing. So it's incumbent upon us as marketers to drive the implementation of cohesive performance monitoring.

So, as you can see, although monitoring has tended to be limited to the IT domain, that does not have to be the case. And there's plenty of reason for marketers to take advantage of new technologies to maximize customer perceived performance and minimize negative events on an ongoing basis.

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James Sivis is president of digital marketing services firm Marqana. He has also served as a graduate adjunct professor of business at Elmhurst College, a top-10 Midwest comprehensive college.

Twitter: @JamesSivis

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  • by Humans & Computers Fri Mar 16, 2012 via web

    The 80% rate for IT failures attributed to humans is probably too low these days. That number is from a study that is about 4-5 years old now. In my experience providing IT management to SMBs, over 95% of issues are caused by people - computers tend to work well.

    When marketing/advertising departments do not co-ordinate their efforts with IT, problems arise. This is especially problematic when offline events direct people to online resources.

    For example, I was at a conference where the speaker told the audience to check out a demo right now on their mobile phones/tablets. When dozens of audience members tried to hit the demo at once, it failed. IT had not planned on major traffic to the demo until after the conference. Marketing, however, moved up the timetable without letting anyone in IT know.

    On the flip side, if IT has maintenance windows or knows of existing performance issues, these need to be clearly communicated to marketing/sales staff. For example, I dealt with a case where IT planned on a 15' outage but it turned into 2 hours. During this period, the clients PPC campaigns were still running. With better communication, these campaigns could have been stopped.

  • by Anonie Mouse Fri Mar 16, 2012 via web

    TLDR. Needs headings.

  • by Therese Fri Mar 16, 2012 via web

    Agreed, Anonie Mouse. Unfortunately, I couldn't get through this article and stopped reading. The topic caught my eye, but content is far too bulky and I lost interest. As a content marketer, just wanted to pass along a suggestion - use headers and make the content more "readable" to your audience.

  • by Bibi Fri Mar 16, 2012 via web

    Thank you for your comments. We usually include article headings, but this one slipped through the cracks. We've added the headings now. Thanks again for the reminder.

  • by Both Worlds Fri Mar 16, 2012 via web

    I agree with "Human and Computers" - communication is key between marketing and IT. Having been a director in both, I have to bridge both worlds frequently. Marketing has to be aware of how their campaigns take a toll on IT resources and IT needs to be cautious when planning maintenance around big marketing campaigns.

    However, IT will not take kindly to Marketing complaining about website response times and telling them what they need to do to fix it. Marketing often has no idea what is actually going on in the back-end. It is not Marketing's area of expertise and would most likely cause increase resentment and refusal to work together as a team.

    Choose a performance monitoring tool AS A TEAM. Do not bring in IT into the loop after the fact. Analyze the performance reports AS A TEAM.

  • by Michelle Sat Mar 17, 2012 via web

    I imagine it would also be a good idea for Marketing to ask questions like: What types of campaigns / widgets / features tend to be slower or faster to load? If IT gives Marketing insight into what things are set in stone and what things are flexible, it should help with planning.

    Perhaps IT can suggest a flow of web traffic that won't overtax the server...say timing segmented email blasts so click through is not all at once.

    I work for a small company andam not sure how these things work when you have web traffic of several hundred or thousand a day, but these are things that came to mind.

    This is a very informative article, but even with the headings it was a bit hard to read. Perhaps the wording is too technical for me because I'm unfamiliar with the subject matter. Even though I know what IT means and the acronym CPP was explained, I think my brain had trouble with it in a piece as long as this one. I don't think the piece is too long, but I do think it's worth considering a rewrite for better accessibility.

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